THIS YEAR, Congress established April 15 as Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorating the Nazi genocide of European Jewry. Just nine days later, on April 24, Armenians throughout the world observed the commemoration of their great tragedy: the massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Turks that began in 1915.
In many ways, it was the 20th century’s first genocide that helped set the stage for its largest, including Rwanda and now Darfur. Adolf Hitler reportedly said, on the eve of his invasion of Poland in 1939, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
For the last 60 years, the Jewish community has labored to avoid granting Hitler, in the words of philosopher Emil Fackenheim, “a posthumous victory.” Jews have taken as their motto “never again,” and most tend to understand that this charge refers to all of humanity, not only to fellow Jews. One of the last surviving leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Simha “Kazik” Rotem, once said that the central lesson of the Holocaust to him was that the Jewish people should stand vigilant against genocidal acts directed at any people.
This is why it is troubling that some major Jewish organizations have lined up in support of Turkey’s efforts to keep the U.S. Congress from recognizing the Armenian massacres as an act of genocide. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and B’nai B’rith International recently conveyed a letter from the Turkish Jewish community opposing a resolution recognizing the genocide.
The ADL and the JINSA also added their own statements of opposition, suggesting that the massacre of Armenians was a matter for historians, not legislators, to decide.
The American Jewish community has insisted, and rightly so, that the U.S. Congress, the United Nations and other governmental bodies formally commemorate the Holocaust. Why should Jews not insist on the same in this case, especially given the widespread scholarly consensus that what happened to the Armenians from 1915 to 1923 was genocide? After all, the man who coined the term “genocide” to refer to the Holocaust — the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin — cited the Armenian massacres as a precedent.
The unfortunate and well-known answer to the question is that Turkey has fiercely opposed efforts to call the Armenian massacres “genocide.” Moreover, it has asked its friends to help beat back the attempts at historical recognition.
Jewish opposition to recognizing the Armenian genocide comes mainly from a desire to safeguard the important strategic relationship between Turkey and Israel. Alone among the world’s Muslim nations, Turkey has forged close military, political and economic ties with Israel. In addition, Jews remember with a deep sense of gratitude that Turkey served as an important haven for their forebears fleeing persecution, from the time of the Spanish Expulsion in 1492 to the dark days of Nazism and beyond. And it is not just that Turkey has been kind to Israel and the Jews. It is a critically important U.S. ally in a dangerous region racked by religious extremism.
Nobody is suggesting that Jews forget Turkey’s historic friendship. But it is a mistake for Jews — or, for that matter, anyone — to surrender the moral imperative of condemning genocide in the hopes of avoiding a perceived, but by no means necessary, strategic loss. Similarly, it would be a mistake for Turkey to hinge its own strategic interests on the denial of past criminal acts. Coming to terms with the past, as democratic Germany has done in the aftermath of the Holocaust and South Africa in the wake of apartheid, is the best path to political legitimacy.
Turkey, a trusted ally and friend of the Jews and the United States, must come to terms with its past for its own sake. It is that battle that leading Turkish intellectuals, including Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and martyred Armenian activist Hrant Dink, have been waging so nobly. We should do all in our power to strengthen the hands of these figures and avoid the abyss of historical revisionism.
Sixty years (and millions of historical documents) later, the world still has to contend with those who deny the Holocaust. We need only recall the shocking words and deeds of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on this score.
In response to such denials, all decent-minded people, and Jews in particular, must continue to declare loudly “never again” — not only to future genocides but also to the attempted denial of past genocides, regardless of who the perpetrators or victims are.